USGS Outstanding in the Field, Episode 8, Braving thin ice

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Detailed Description

This is the first in a special edition of Outstanding in the Field, the U.S. Geological Survey’s podcast series produced by the Ecosystems Mission Area. In this series we will be highlighting stories from the Alaska Voices podcast, a partnership between the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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Date Taken:

Location Taken: US

Transcript

[Intro music fades out]

 

BOB BOLTON

Welcome, to this special edition of Outstanding in the Field, the U.S. Geological Survey’s podcast series produced by the Ecosystems Mission Area. Today we bring you a special edition where we will be highlighting stories from the Alaska Voices podcast, a partnership between the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This series is a place for communities to connect through conversation in order to build a better tomorrow. I’m Bob Bolton.

 

[Accent Music and Alaska Voices: “Originally I grew up in Gakona, Alaska.” “Tyonek” “Egypt” “Idaho” “Rampart” “St. Lawrence Island” “St. Paul” “And I’m here with my student” “My science buddy” “My teacher” “My homie” “I’m his daughter”]

 

[Coastal background sounds]

 

VICTOR  TONUCHUK, JR.

My name is Victor Tonuchuk, Jr. I'm 31 years old and I'm speaking with Ryan.

 

RYAN TOOHEY

And my name's Ryan Toohey. I'm 40 years old and I'm speaking with Victor, a friend and collaborator. Can you tell people what Kotlik's like and where it's at?

 

VICTOR TONUCHUK, JR.

Kotlik is located on the north mouth of the Yukon Delta. It's a Yup'ik Eskimo community in rural Alaska. We are a community that still practice and rely on a subsistence and fishing lifestyle.

 

RYAN TOOHEY

So you guys are right on the edge of Alaska, staring off into the Bering Sea there. A lot of the stuff that comes to Kotlik comes in by barge, right?

 

VICTOR TONUCHUK, JR.

Yes. Barge and by plane.

 

RYAN TOOHEY

That's one of the reasons that the fish and the moose are important.

 

VICTOR TONUCHUK, JR.

Yes.

 

RYAN TOOHEY

Did you have a particular story that you wanted to tell?

 

VICTOR TONUCHUK, JR. Yeah. My late father, Victor Tonuchuk Sr., he talked to me about the changes  from when he was a child from his last days on Earth in Kotlik. We lived there our whole lives. Probably five to eight generations.

 

One of the things that he shared with me sea level rise. He mentioned that Kotlik never really used to experience flooding. We had river ice jams, storms weren't really an issue back then. I'd say within the last 20 years maybe about 15 of those years we've seen a lot of changes in our climates with floods, erosions, fall storms are a lot intense.

 

RYAN TOOHEY

You guys had a pretty substantial flood in, was it 3 or 4 years ago?

 

VICTOR TONUCHUK, JR.

Yes. It was in November of 2013. I think it was like a fifteen mile radius of how far the water and ice came in. We're about five miles upriver from the ocean.

 

Some of our lakes are drying out. Places where swamp, they're drying out. In the past, our freeze-ups would occur in the middle part of October but nowadays we're starting to see our freeze-ups like they're in November. And we start to see earlier spring thaws. Warmer winters. Our ice is not as thick as it used to be in the past. We're not getting as much snow as we used to.

 

RYAN TOOHEY

Why does it matter if you don't have any snow or thick ice?

 

VICTOR TONUCHUK, JR.

It takes the ice a little bit longer to get thick enough for us to walk on, to go out and put our nets under the ice. Those were one of the changes my dad talked about, too, where we go out and put our nets a little bit later than the past.

 

RYAN TOOHEY

And what are you guys catching during the winter time?

 

VICTOR TONUCHUK, JR.

We set our nets out to catch sheefish, it's a white fish. It gets maybe about three and a half feet big.

 

In spring, in summer, seals come into the river. The way we hunt seals, we still practice an ancient method of hunting. We use a spear, it's made out of driftwood. We carve it into a long, narrow stick, like. At the end of the spear we put feathers on there to help make it spin, fly. Some use ivory for their tip points. Nowadays we start to use brass because they stay sharp. We throw the spear with the spear-thrower, which is also made out of driftwood.

 

When it's falltime we go out into the ocean when it's starting to form ice. But when we go out to the ocean, we use guns and harpoon. Harpoon, it's like the spear but it's thicker. We don't use spear-throwers for the harpoons, we just hold it in our hand.

 

It can be dangerous for some who haven't really experienced hunting like that. We gain our skills and our knowledge at a young age when our dad or uncles, grandpas bring us out. They talk to us about the times, when to go out, what to look for, how to read the weather.

 

RYAN TOOHEY

There's a lot of connection with St. Michaels, right?

 

VICTOR TONUCHUK, JR.

Stebbins, St. Michael.

 

RYAN TOOHEY

St. Michaels.

 

VICTOR TONUCHUK, JR.

Yes, one of the relationships we have with Stebbins and St Michael is the annual potlatches that we have every year in March.

 

RYAN TOOHEY

And can you describe a little bit what goes on in a potlatch?

 

VICTOR TONUCHUK, JR.

We have potlatches to celebrate, for instance, if a boy caught his first seal. Or if a girl pick berries for the first time. Their parents or their grandparents would introduce them at the potlatch, honoring them. Our first time dancers, the one that they present, some of them carry the names of those who have passed on, they present them. After they introduce them they pass out gifts to our guests who come from Stebbins, St. Michael, other nearby communities like Emmonak, Alakanuk, Nunam.

 

And the second night of the potlatch they pass out Native foods that they gather, like the sheefish that they get soon as the ice is thick enough to go on and set the nets under the river. We collect them and store them in our sheds. That's one of our trades that we do with Stebbins, trading our sheefish with their reindeer. 

 

But when we have our potlatches, it's a two day event. Two days of dancing and singing. Some of our elders are starting to wonder how we're going to get to the potlatch. They think about these changes.

 

RYAN TOOHEY

Because the sea ice is gone.

 

VICTOR TONUCHUK, JR.

Yeah, the sea ice is gone. When we travel up to St. Michael or Stebbins, we go out onto the Norton Sound on the coastline. When the tides coming in, that water pushes up and it affects our trail on the coastline. Where we have to cross the sloughs and creeks, they're filled up with water.  Or if the ocean freezes out, we use the ocean trail. But the ocean is not freezing as it used to.

 

My dad and our elders, they would say our grass growth depends on how much snow we have.

 

[Exit music fades in]

 

The way I remember my community in the past, when I was young, it was beautiful. It was beautiful before we lost a lot of ground to erosion. So tall the grass used to be, we'd go run around and play in the grass, get lost in the grass.

 

That's one thing I remember, the grass being so tall, not like how it is today.

 

BOB BOLTON

Alaska Voices builds bridges by creating a space where community members, friends, policy makers, and scientists can share stories and place-based knowledge. This project was developed in partnership with StoryCorp and was funded by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center. Additional funding was provided by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Chancellor, through a generous gift from the Bentley Family Trust. Alaska Voices would not be possible without the help and efforts of an amazing group of people. Our producer and audio engineer is Kelsey Skonberg of Mossy Stone Media, our podcast and outreach specialist is Michael DeLue, and our website designer is Carolyn Rossner. If you are interested in more conversations or information, please visit our website at alaskavoices.org.